Whether it was gazing out the window or staring at her with a blank look, our minds had wandered off, out of the classroom, even though our bodies were still physically present. Amazingly, we were sometimes able to protest that we
were paying attention and proved it by repeating every word that was just said. The reality was however, that we had only picked up the literal words and had no idea of the meaning of the discussion that had just taken place.
Through neuroscience we are now learning a lot more about how our brains work and what attention really means. Our brains can only really pay conscious attention to one thing at a time. For less complex tasks,
we are able to create the illusion of multitasking by switching very fast between activities. For example, spoken sentences have lots of gaps, and our minds can process information in milliseconds. We are thus able to check
our emails and write down a grocery list and still piece together the words that are spoken in a sentence.
Effective communication, however, requires us to interpret the words for meaning and this is an incredibly complex task, subject to all sorts of distortions.
Good listening is an active task that requires us to pay attention.
In the workplace, our day usually consists of a mixture of routine, and fairly menial work balanced by activities that require deep, intellectual thinking. In the usual open plan offices, with our electronic always-on communications devices
surrounding us, it is often literally impossible to pay attention to the task at hand. When we need to think properly, or communicate properly, we have no choice but to go somewhere where we cannot be interrupted and leave our smart phones behind.